< Back < Back


US east coast road trip

Univ Ho and Shen Travel Report Master’s Scholarship to US Travel Report – Raymond Ho & Tiger Shen
A Road Trip along the American East Coast: Tracing Culture, History and People from Charleston to New York

With acknowledgements to all Old Members who met and hosted us along the way, as well as the University College Master’s Scholarship to America and Canada for 2019.

On 2 July, my co-scholar Raymond Ho and I commenced on what would become a three-week trip journeying along the East Coast of America. While undoubtedly an academic pursuit, with interests in gathering material for research in historical and social psychology, this was also an opportunity to immerse ourselves in a different culture and spend a summer travelling through what is certainly a unique, diverse and at-times eye-opening country, made up of different people, different histories and different ideas, all gathered together in an often incoherent whole. America proved ultimately to be different and so much more than what either of us had expected; stereotypes, be it of the Old South or of the canyon-like streets in New York, were soon to be shattered, replaced with a new view of what ‘America’ as a nation and as a people meant.

The Diary – quirks and struggles of travelling along the Atlantic Coast

Day 1 – 2 July

The first day of our trip proved perhaps to be one of the most difficult; it was long, tiring, hectic and involved a copious amount of travelling. For me, it started at roughly four in the morning when I left Oxford for the airport to catch our flight to the States. I ended up meeting Raymond at Heathrow (he had made the trip in from London) and while we checked in together rather amicably, he (perhaps rightfully) insisted that we had arrived far too early.

The actual flight from London to New York-JFK all went pretty smoothly, although the real challenge would be making the connecting flight from JFK to Charleston; the late arrival of the flight from Heathrow cut our transfer time down to a mere thirty minutes, and the airport’s rather ridiculous policy that required us to recheck luggage between connecting flights made matters worse. The fact that the flight leaving for Charleston was departing from a different terminal on the other side of the airport seemed to be the final nail in the coffin!

By some rather fortuitous chance, the connecting flight turned out to be delayed (perhaps the only occasion to my memory where a delayed flight has been welcome news), and we were able to somehow catch the plane on time.

Nonetheless, the delayed flight did mean we arrived in Charleston significantly later than we had intended, and coupled with the fact that the Airbnb was located some ways away from the historic city centre, it was unlikely that we would get anything meaningful done in terms of sightseeing that day. Either way, we were tired after a full day of travelling, so given the limited public transport options available at that time of the day, we opted to make a short hop to the nearest Walmart to grab some groceries before calling it a night. The Airbnb hosts were a hospitable young couple, and although the neighbourhood seemed to be a little on the shabby side, the property itself was lovely.

Univ Ho and Shen Travel Report Day 2 – 3 July

I suppose we didn’t have any real plans for Charleston; it wasn’t meant to be a strictly academic stop in terms of pursuing research ideas or visiting archives, but it did appeal to both of our interests in history, culture and especially food, so we decided to treat our sole full day in Charleston as time for sightseeing, as well as learning about both Southern culture and food.

After catching a bus from our Airbnb in North Charleston to downtown, we spent a good portion of the morning walking around the old streets of the colonial centre, admiring the architecture that gave the city a rather European feel – although with the heat and humidity we did struggle a little!

We then decided to have lunch from an American soul food seafood joint, which specialised in deep fried products cooked ‘just like how Nana used to’ at Nana’s Seafood and Soul. We tried shrimps, devilled crabs, and fried tilapia with fries. Soul food would feature a lot in the cuisine that we tried, and as we discovered, there was a surprising amount of history to be found in that. What would perhaps be more surprising is what science (psychology in particular) could have to do with food. One observation that Tiger and I made was that Americans love deep fried things that had a crunch in it. One might not take much interest in the reasons behind why fried or crunchy food is so popular in America, particularly in soul food cuisine. But if I’ve learnt anything from Ig Nobel Prize winner and my MAIP (one of my psychology modules) professor Charles Spence – we know that our other senses could make a difference to how food taste is perceived. Spence discovered that when changing the crunching sound that potato chips made, this would change how we taste them. Specifically, the more crunchier chips were, the fresher they were perceived as (Spence et al. 2004). So maybe if we extend this logic to deep fried soul food, it could explain historic reasons for the large amounts of crunchy food in America. For example, we know that soul food is largely an African American cuisine, and that they were given undesirable or leftover parts of their cuisine from their slave masters back at the time. Perhaps deep frying the food was a way to make the food seem a bit fresher, because the crunch would give it such a perception. This form of deduction would also form the basis of the interdisciplinary nature of our travel-research – using psychological theories as a basis for explaining historical and current phenomena.

After having a very lovely lunch, we decided to stop by and have a look at the old slave market museum. The museum itself was small and compact, but was interestingly located in the Old Slave Mart of Charleston, a building constructed in 1859 to facilitate the auction of slaves indoors, after open air slave sales were banned in the city. Amongst the small but engaging collection were original transactions documenting the purchase of slaves, as well as slave shackles, slave whips and old photos of slaves.

We later visited the four corners of law in Charleston, which in the 1930s represented the four levels of government/law. These were the courthouse, city hall, the federal building and US post office, and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, which represented state, municipal, federal and canon law respectively. And these four buildings were at intersections to each other. It’s interesting to see from here how the areas of laws developed in Charleston, and also quite funny as to quote the locals ‘you can come here to get married, divorced, taxed and go to jail’.

After that, we decided to go to a classic American diner – the Early bird diner. There we had arguably our best meal on our whole trip, maybe it was the tiredness from the flight that made it seems especially good, maybe it was the novelty of it, but we were certain by then that we had absolutely fell in love with Southern food, particularly soul food. Tiger had a fried pork chop with fried green tomatoes and fried okra (see the connection with Spence et al. 2004?) while I had the most amazing tomato and bacon gravy with sautéed shrimp and grits and biscuits (NOT our biscuits…a weird mutation of a scone would be closer to the description of what American biscuits were). There is some history in shrimp and grits to talk about. This dish, known as a staple of Southern American/Charleston cuisine had (as we learnt with no surprise) African American origins from the slave era. It used to be that Gullah slaves received grits as part of their meal allowance from their masters, and they were able to catch shrimp and other forms of seafood easily. Spence et al. 2017 also makes very good points about how comfort food such as shrimp and grits ‘provide comfort’ – he suggests that despite studies showing that comfort food isn’t that effective in relieving short-induced negative moods, it may help in alleviating social isolation and bring a sense of belonging, as indicated by Troisi et al. 2015. This would be very useful to the African American slaves at the time, particularly when their identity was suppressed as a slave, to unify their group together by the means of comfort food such as shrimp and grits. Of course, more research is needed if we are actually to support this hypothesis properly, but this seems like quite a heart-warming idea of how food can unite groups together in times of adversity and difficulties.

Univ Ho and Shen Travel Report Day 3 – 4 July

One of the banes of attempting to travel in America is certainly the large distances between cities, something that is made worse by the apparent lack of transport infrastructure, such as readily available and reliable intercity railway. Now normally, the easy solution here would be to rent a car; that would be the case, had it not been for the fact that neither Ray nor I know how to drive.

So, the only option for our road trip was to resort to taking the Greyhound buses. I’d heard many stories about these rather infamous buses, ranging from humorous mishaps to absolute travel nightmares, so I suppose I was rather apprehensive.

It also didn’t help that our first long-haul bus trip would be a gruelling seven hour dash all the way from Charleston, in South Carolina, up to the city of Greensboro, in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. It also involved two separate buses, with the first taking us to Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, and the second taking us the rest of the way to Greensboro.

I suppose the Greyhound was in the end a rather nice way of seeing the American countryside, especially throughout the more rural areas of the American South. We managed to have a few hours stopping over in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but other than that, it was more or less a full day spent on the bus. By the time our first bus dropped us off at Raleigh, we were both exhausted and hungry; unhappily, the Greyhound station in Raleigh was perhaps the most ill-equipped we had come across thus far, and was miles away from the actual city centre, which prevented us from heading into town to grab some food.

We did manage to catch the tail end of the July Fourth celebrations in Greensboro, which I suppose was a nice way to finish off what was undeniably another tiring day. After some greasy but satisfying and much needed fast food from the popular southern BBQ chain Cook Out, we were more than ready to call it a night.

Univ Ho and Shen Travel Report Day 4 – 5 July

Our search for archival material on abolitionism, slavery and the history of Quakerism in North Carolina led us on a daytrip to the university city of Durham, NC. This also happened to be our only journey by train on the (equally infamous) Amtrak network; by some chance, the journey between Greensboro and Durham proved to be cheaper (and marginally faster) by train rather than by bus.

Much of the day was spent in the archival collection at Duke University, and I was able to find some very interesting material, the most impressive of which was a series of letters by Mary J. Scarlett, a member of the Society of Friends from Pennsylvania, who made a number of observations on the views that Quakers had on slavery during the mid-1800s. Quakers were traditionally opposed to the notion of slavery based on their belief that to own another human being was to commit a moral evil, and this was strongly expressed in Mary Scarlett’s letter. Interestingly, however, Scarlett’s letter also mentioned a degree of animosity and schisms amongst the Quaker abolitionists in addressing how best to fight slavery.

What we found very interesting was a particular excerpt we found in Mary J. Scarlett’s letter to her sister. “Speaking in meeting and out of it are two things so entirely different that many of our young friends can lecture on moral reform before audiences convened for that purpose but they do not feel the inspiration sufficiently strong to raise their…voice when assembled in our meetings, the professed object of which is to worship God” – Mary J. Scarlett, 1845. This seemed to suggest that the younger generation of Quakers didn’t really seem to have much of a focus on worshipping God but seemed to have more of a moral reason in supporting the abolitionist movements. This would relate to one of our main research questions – were the Quakers supported by a religious or a purely altruistic motivation (should that even exist)? With this in mind, it would seem to suggest that the younger generation was definitely motivated with a moral and altruistic motive. Whether this was pure altruism or just a negative-state relief motivation is up for debate but at least considering this in mind, to most young Quakers, joining the Quakers seemed less a matter of religious motivation but more a very effective means of helping the abolitionist movement.

Duke University archives did lack, however, specific information on the role of North Carolinian Quakers; historiography of Northern Quakers involved in the anti-slavery is well-established, so more research was necessary in regards to the role of Southern Quakers.

Although we did spend a substantial amount of time at the Duke archives, we also had the opportunity to visit the rest of Durham, which turned out to be a compact, somewhat artistic city with an emerging food scene; we visited a diner for some comforting southern fare, and while the breakfast version of shrimp and grits was excellent, the real surprise was the biscuits and gravy. To me, initially, the idea of ‘sausage gravy’ didn’t sound especially appetising, but it turned out to be rich, flavourful and filling, paired with some soft, flaky southern biscuits.

Day 5 – 6 July

The main highlight of the day was a trip to Mendenhall Homeplace, an old Quaker homestead that was central to my research on Quaker abolitionism in North Carolina, and especially Guilford County, which Tiger had identified as a prime focus for his thesis research. This town was particularly interesting to us, because Greensboro was the hub for the abolitionist movement in the South, where North Carolina was a strong slave state. So how did this county supporting abolitionism could form in a state surrounded by other counties that supported slavery?

It turned out to be a little bit of a trip to actually get to Mendenhall Homeplace; the homestead was located in the neighbouring township of Jamestown, a picturesque settlement with a railway line ambling through the town centre. Considering the general lack of public transport, the only way to reach Jamestown was via rideshare (we opted for a Lyft).

From the outside, Mendenhall Homeplace did seem rather unassuming; it was not an especially elaborate house by any standard (Quaker architecture tended to be quite plain), had two floors, a veranda and sat quietly by the side of a busy main road out of town, seemingly all but forgotten by those who passed it. But as we would find out, there was a wealth of history on this property. Primarily, the Quaker Mendenhall family, who owned the homestead and lived on the land throughout the nineteenth century, played an immense role in aiding runaway slaves and encouraging a budding anti-slavery movement right within the heartland of slave territory.

The lone tour guide who greeted us was excellent; she was a plethora of knowledge with regards to the history of the house and of the Mendenhalls. As we were the only visitors, she was able to offer us a private tour, and it was evident that she knew the property like the back of her hand. Especially interesting were the numerous hidden spaces within the old house, notably the crawl space above the veranda where the family had hidden fugitive slaves, as well as the attic, where the family patriarch Richard Mendenhall had allegedly taught runaway slaves to read and write. Most famous however, was the wagon in the property’s barn; while appearing relatively ordinary from the outside, the wagon actually had a false bottom, which was used to hide runaway slaves in order to transport them to safety in the North. Such false bottom wagons were documented by North Carolina Quaker and abolitionist Levi Coffin, and only two such wagons still remain today.

One major difficulty in our project with Southern Quakers was that details of how they supported the abolitionist movement were very poorly documented – and for very good reasons – it was illegal, and as the tour guide told us, it was punishable with the shaming of the family name and the state would take the property as well as the wealth of the particular family that aided slaves. This was the main reason that they had to be so secretive, with false bottom wagons (which smartly had vases or other fragile items on top of it to stop guards checking it by stabbing pitchforks into them) and crawl spaces to hide slaves. He also put slaves he ‘owned’ in his employment, and paid them to help him run his shoe shop (Mendenhall was a very good craftsman) as a way of helping slaves to have a more humane treatment, as setting them free was not effective, due to large amounts of slave support in North Carolina.

Our very helpful tour guide also provided us with lots of useful information about what motivated the Mendenhall family to do what they did. For example, it was suggested that they used to teach slaves, both male or female in a little hut acting as a schoolhouse behind their house, because they believed that education was equal to everyone, because God created everyone equal.. Perhaps this would shine some light into the debate above – the older or first generation of Quakers seemed to perhaps really be motivated mostly by religious reasons, and did what they did to support the slaves because of what they believed in. Although it is really difficult to tell whether it was only because they were religious and hence why they supported the abolitionist movement, and whether they would have done so without being a Quaker, it goes without saying that religion definitely played a much bigger role than it did in the later generations. One of the old members that we met and hosted us later in Philadelphia  – Professor Tim Sellers – came from a generation of Quaker families, and in our late night conversation under the stars with wine and cheese, he told us about how even though a lot of the later generations of Quakers didn’t really have a religious belief anymore, the moral and philosophical beliefs of being a Quaker seemed to be inherited in younger generations, and be passed on to help more and more people down the ages.

So, if we go back to our question of what actually motivated the abolitionist movement within a town in a slave state – there were governmental reasons, where our tour guide suggested due to the upbringing of the then state governor in a Quaker-oriented society, seemed to have made policies that turned a blind eye to the abolitionist movement. But how has the Quakers shaped this movement? If we look at what we’ve learnt so far, a reasonable suggestion would be that the first generation of Quakers were supported by their beliefs in God and aided the slaves because they believed this was the right thing according to God. However, with other moral beliefs shaped by the studies of God, this was passed on to younger generations of Quakers, who adopted these beliefs even though some might not have such a large commitment religiously, but was supported more by the idea of ‘doing the right thing’ via the Quaker-established underground railroad. It is quite impressive indeed as to how the Quakers managed to pull off this movement down South, and I suppose at the end of the day, whether or not they were purely altruistic doesn’t matter. Regardless of what their motivations were, in the models of helping, it seems like Quakers of all generations were able to accept African-American as part of their own kind, and this kind of ‘one-ness’ was what led them to have such a strong support in the abolitionist movement. As we know from intergroup conflict studies (Tajfel et al. 1970), the mere presence of categorical distinction can lead to discrimination between groups, but with the Quaker beliefs and motivation, it seems like they were able to recategorize themselves as part of God’s beings or simply human beings that are equal, breaking down the categories of race. As Dovidio et al. (2000) suggests, this is a perfect way to reduce intergroup bias, by altering the motivations of ingroup favouritism by changing the concept from ‘us vs them’ to ‘we’. Upon reflection, I feel like this would apply to our current times, especially in light of recent incidents relating to the Hong Kong protests, where we have a severe identity crisis with our citizens being broken down into three main camps. It would really help if we could take a leaf out of the success of the abolitionist movement, not necessarily solving the problems by religion, but finding a common identity that we agree and support as our beacon of light in our city’s troubling times.

Day 6 – 7 July

This was a relatively relaxed day for us at Greensboro, as most of the museums, archives and universities that we wanted to visit were closed. So we decided to have a tour around the city and experience the best of the Southern city life.

We first visited a Sunday farmer’s market where we tracked down classic Southern ingredients, from BBQ and hot sauce, sweetcorn to okra (these would later feature in our attempt to create a Southern stir-fry in a crab shell for dinner) . But I think what impressed me the most was a green apple coleslaw, the tartness of the apple matched surprisingly as an unconventional addition to the ubiquitous side dish, and as Spence would probably suggest – this might have made the coleslaw taste a lot fresher due to the apple’s crunchiness!

Walking down main street, Greensboro reminded us of how long American streets were and how tiring it was to walk from place to place. It was a very pleasant walk for us, since the buildings on Elm Street (the main street) were very pretty and sold quite interesting things such as bacon cider. The city was very hilly, and some quick trivia we later discovered was that Greensboro (or Greensborough back then) was actually named after Nathaniel Greene, one of the modern major generals of the American Revolution and also coming from a Quaker himself. He led the Revolutionary Army in the Battle of Guilford Court House in what is now Greensboro, and even though he was defeated at the end, he inflicted heavy casualties on the British, and historians counted this as a strategic victory on the part of the Americans, because this strategic victory later led to decisions building up to Lord Cornwallis moving up to Yorktown and focusing on Virginia, subsequently surrounding to George Washington.

Later, we tried the second unconventional food choice of the day – chicken and waffles. No way it would ever match, it would be just some novelty thing that we try and would probably never try it again, we told ourselves. Spoiler alert: We were wrong. Tiger and I absolutely enjoyed every bite of this classic Soul dish, with the perfectly fried drumsticks matching amazingly well with the sweet and sour blueberry waffles, and combined with their homemade Calypso Hot Sauce, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Dame’s Chicken and Waffles was a party heaven for our sensations.

Day 7 – 8 July

For our final day in Greensboro, we visited the archives at Guilford College, in the west of Greensboro, in order to find out more about the Quakers of Guilford County, who had played a significant role in the small but influential anti-slavery movement in North Carolina.

Guilford College itself was initially established as a school by the Quakers of the New Garden Meetinghouse. Thus, it was fitting that the College’s collection had a substantial number of documents related to the history of Quakerism in North Carolina.

Perhaps the most significant documents at Guilford were the Mendenhall family papers, consisting of family transactions, correspondence and diaries. Some gems amongst this collection included an 1856 letter from George C. Mendenhall, a prominent lawyer and the brother of Richard Mendenhall; in the letter, addressed to John McLeod, makes remarks on aiding fugitive slaves and helping with smuggling an individual named ‘Martha’ to freedom in Ohio. When we take into account George Mendenhall’s own situation and lifestyle (as a respected public figure, he too owned slaves), this correspondence proves to be very interesting and extremely revealing. The archives also held documents on Richard Mendenhall, and although unfortunately there was nothing especially overt with regards to his anti-slavery activities, I was able to find an article written by Richard Mendenhall with regards to ‘manumission’ and ‘colonisation’, possible directions that the abolitionist movement could take. Manumission was the process by which Quakers released any slaves they held from their bondage, and colonisation, interestingly, was the mid-nineteenth century movement whereby abolitionists, unsure of calling for full emancipation, suggested that freed slaves could be transported back to Africa, where they could live in specially created colonies; Liberia is one such modern country that emerged from the actions of the American Colonisation Society. It was interesting that Richard Mendenhall supported such an ideal; after all, the unspoken implications of the Colonisation Society were that African slaves had no place in white American society, even after their emancipation. We had perceived the Mendenhalls (and Quakers in general) to be a proponent of racial equality following our visit to Mendenhall Homeplace, so it was surprising that this was the direction Richard Mendenhall was willing to take.

Some other interesting material we came across were the minutes from the North Carolina Yearly Meetings of Friends (in essence a kind of Quaker community meeting that happened on an annual basis), ranging from 1845 right up to the start of the Civil War. Also illuminating were the diary entries of Harriet Peck, a northern Quaker schoolmistress sympathetic to the abolitionist cause; in the diary, Peck records her trip down to North Carolina and her experience first-hand with the Quaker community at New Garden (located in modern-day Greensboro).

Univ Ho and Shen Travel Report Day 8 – 9 July

Having finished up in Greensboro, we took a Greyhound trip to Richmond, the capital of Virginia.

After the three hour journey to get to Richmond, Ray and I were starving, so it was rather fortuitous that there was a really good barbeque joint just a few blocks from the bus station. While quiet and unassuming from the outside (it was a tiny little restaurant), the food was delicious; the ribs were smoky and sweet, with a perfect amount of tenderness that meant the meat wasn’t quite falling off the bone, but still had a great texture with each bite.

Our Airbnb turned out to be in a rather industrial but still pleasant neighbourhood, about fifteen minutes from the city centre. Most prominently, it was near the Church Hill historic area, which we explored after dropping off our bags at the accommodation. Not only was the Church Hill neighbourhood gorgeous, with its quaint little row houses and aesthetic architecture, it also had several historical sites, the most famous of which was the old St John’s Episcopal Church, built in 1741 by Colonel Richard Randolph; the neighbourhood itself was named after this historic church. It was also here that Patrick Henry delivered his famous ‘give me liberty, or give me death!’ speech on March 23 1775 during the Second Virginia Convention; Henry’s speech was pivotal in swinging opinion amongst convention members towards the movement for independence.

In Richmond, what we noticed while walking around the city were massive statues of Confederate Generals. Particularly at night, where we passed by the statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Commander in the American Civil War being lit up with spotlights on a roundabout, we started to question ourselves on the identity of Virginia and the Confederacy. How are these statues still standing? We would first remind ourselves of the Charlottesville incident that happened in 2017, where white nationalists were protesting against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and another protest ended with a white nationalist driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. A lot of these protesters must share similar views to now-President Trump’s message back then: ‘Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments…Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?’ tweeted then Mr. Trump. Perhaps they believe that by removing Confederate statues, they would be removing their own identity as Americans, and their ancestors identity as supporters of the Confederacy.

I feel like to some extent, the removal of these statues and the re-examination of American history is challenging their own identity and their own heritage, which is linked largely to their world views and perhaps what they think unite them. They might be worried that their identity as ‘superior’ Americans would be challenged and they were challenged that as a society, both historically and perhaps even currently, the community has not been treating it’s members as equals. This might contribute to a larger level of worry in white nationalists, which choose to react by attributing their worries to people who counter their views, and to transfer their worries and stress to the people they attribute it to – people who want to remove the statues. Upon reading Frances Stead Sellers’ articles (Editor and Senior Writer at The Washington Post) while preparing to meet her, we discovered that she had a report that was exactly targeting this issue, while further reviewing challenges against the Betty Ross flag and even one of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson – even though Trump might have suggested it ironically. This actually leads to a very interesting debate as Sellers put it out, because on one side, Jefferson was a slave owner himself, using them for his own benefit with some accusations of rape as well. But on the other hand, Jefferson’s ideas were key to the abolitionist movement, with Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. using his ideas to resonate with the American people, not to mention Jefferson’s writings being fundamental to the entire establishment of the United States.

It is obviously a very complicated issue to discuss, and it is entirely true that meanings can be changed easily throughout time (e.g. LGBTQ issues from Victorian eras to present date), but we must also be wary of overly simplifying or complicating ideas from the past. Perhaps a must simpler way to acknowledge African Americans, as the article suggests, would be to honour those who have helped build the United States, did the actual work (e.g. building monuments), and suffered for the country while acknowledging the atrocities in the past that were committed as well as recognizing the country’s glorious history. It must be difficult for the white nationalists to get past their identity that is considered racist (even objectively), but if the younger generations could be convinced of this approach, maybe America would have fewer international tragedies like Donald Trump.

Day 9 – 10 July

Having already spent a full day in Richmond, we decided that it would be a good idea to take a day trip out to the historic settlements of Williamsburg and Jamestown, about an hour’s drive from the state capital.

Williamsburg is one of the oldest settlements in America; established as the capital of the Virginia Colony in 1699, it played a major role in the political events leading up to the American Revolution.

We could certainly feel this history as we arrived; the old town centre was impossibly picturesque with its handsome brick buildings and lush green trees lining the old streets. It all felt akin to something out of a fairy-tale; in fact, today Colonial Williamsburg has been established as an open-air museum, based around the old main street that runs between the Wren Building of the William and Mary College, and the Old Capitol Building.

We spent a few hours strolling through Colonial Williamsburg; what added to the experience was the fact that there were guides and re-enactors dressed in period appropriate clothing greeting visitors around the old town, as well as horse-drawn carts offering rides along the old main street. Each building had a little plaque explaining its history, and while not all of the buildings were original from the seventeenth century (some were reconstructions as originals were often lost to fire), it was still an enjoyable and historical experience. A highlight for me especially was the grand Governor’s palace; although a reconstruction, the stately brick building, with its two wings and central bell tower, was able to give a sense of the original structure, funded by the powerful Virginian House of Burgesses in the early 1700s.

After grabbing a quick but homely lunch at a cosy little bistro that served some brilliant prawn soup, we decided to take a local bus to the historic site of Jamestown, famous for being the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. While we found the actual entry fee to the archaeological area rather steep, we were told by a friendly bus driver that there was a free ferry service crossing the James River, and from the ferry we could see Jamestown, especially the old bell tower of the church. We took up his suggestion, and since he had no other passengers, he offered to act as a guide of sorts, explaining to us the history and culture of the area surrounding Jamestown and the James River; he certainly had quite a few stories to tell!

The views across the river were beautiful, and we were certainly blessed to have some stunning, sunny weather that day.

Univ Ho and Shen Travel Report Day 10 – 11 July

Our first day from Richmond to Washington D. C. was relatively cheerful, with a lovely 5am morning and a very sad goodbye to the bubbly adorable cat in residence called Gremlin. Upon arriving in D.C., we dropped our bags off at one of our host David Frederick’s office, who was very kind to let us store our bags temporarily while we went sightseeing.

We visited the Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian that day, and learnt a lot in the section learning about how the Earth was formed, and how climate change has been affecting Planet Earth. This was slightly irrelevant to our main research project, but it was still very interesting to learn about.

After a stroll around D.C., and a free (very awkwardly coloured) blue Slurpee from 7-11 to celebrate 7-11 day, we then met our other host, Sophie Lynn, who was very kind to drive us from David’s office to a French Michelin Recommended restaurant for dinner. Sophie treated us to the most intriguing dish that we have had so far, a D.C. classic – the soft shelled crab. However, what separates this particular soft shell crab from others was that it was steamed instead of deep fried, like in Japanese cuisine. This gave it quite an interesting texture but it was still incredibly tasty, as it had delicious fresh crab meat on the inside while a thick but edible skin texture on the outside. This was a dish that I think both Tiger and I would remember for a long time, as it’s quite a special one that we would never have been able to have if it wasn’t for Sophie.

Day 11 – 12 July

Our second full day in D.C. was dedicated to visiting a few of the most famous sites in the capital, namely the National Archives (which held the United States Constitution), the Capitol Building and the Library of Congress.

After Sophie treated us to a delicious home-cooked breakfast, she was kind enough to call us an Uber to get into the city, given the difficulty of transport from their house in McLean.

Given the popularity of the Constitution as an attraction, we decided to head to the National Archives first, and even though we arrived relatively early in the morning and the archives were yet to open, there was already a small line forming at the entrance.

Visiting the actual Rotunda that held the fabled Charters of Freedom (the three most important documents in American history) was a somewhat surreal experience; we talk so much about the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in current affairs and political debates that they verge on simply being cliched ideas, endlessly referenced to in academic writing, but actually seeing them in person gives you a sense of not only how special these documents are, but also how delicate they are. There’s a strange sense of vulnerability looking at these tattered and yellowed pieces of parchment; to think that the entirety of the American philosophy and vision stemmed from these works is difficult for a non-American like me to comprehend.

As well as the Charters of Freedom, the National Archives also held an extensive museum that documents the work done by the National Archives and Records Administration. We managed to join a tour group led by a guide who was pointing out the highlights of the museum collection; as well as fascinating insights into the everyday lives of Americans throughout the twentieth century, one particularly interesting artefact was a letter addressed to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. The rather cheeky piece of correspondence was written by a young Cuban, who asked for a ten-dollar note from Roosevelt, claiming that he had never seen one before; Roosevelt, though amused, turned him down. As the strange tale of history would have it, the author turned out to actually be a twelve-year-old Fidel Castro!

After our visit to the National Archives Building, we headed towards the famous Capitol Building, the heart of American political power. We had booked for a midday tour to the Capitol’s rotunda, and after passing through the (very extensive) security and picking up our tickets at the Capitol Visitor Centre, we joined a tour of the famous building, starting in a little lecture theatre, where we were shown a (rather patriotic) information video about the Capitol and the government institutions based there. With that out of the way, our tour group was led through the basement of the building, where a number of statues representing the original thirteen colonies surrounded a memorial plaque to George Washington. The guide explained to us that as opposed to common misconception, this was not a grave; Washington is actually buried at Mount Vernon, his beloved plantation.

While the Capitol Rotunda itself was very impressive and contained some brilliant artwork commemorating the birth of America, for me, the most interesting part of the tour was the stop we made in the hall of statues. This hall houses statues of eminent figure from each of the fifty states of America; every few years, each state holds a vote as to which eminent figure ought to represent the state in the hall. Thus, what intrigued me were the choices that some of the states made. For instance, the state of Georgia had chosen a statue of Alexander H. Stephens to symbolise Georgia in the Capitol building; Stephens was actually the Vice President of the Confederate States of America. Consequently, contemporaries came to consider Stephens as a traitor to the Union for his involvement with the Confederacy, and by extension a traitor to America; to have such a figure represented in the Capitol thus came as a surprise to me.

The final stop for the day was the Library of Congress, officially known as the Thomas Jefferson Building, a monumental structure built in the Beaux-Arts style between 1890 and 1897. A very knowledgeable tour guide took us around the building, pointing out the various architectural motifs and elements adorning its interior; apparently, the architect, German-American Paul J. Pelz, had been inspired by the Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, a building that shared similar Beaux-Arts qualities. Especially impressive was the circular reading room at the centre of the building, a space that could very much rival the Radcliffe Camera in size and ornamentation.

To wrap up the day, we met David Frederick, the Old Member who was also hosting us, at Union Station; he was returning from a court case he was arguing up in New York, and offered us a lift back to the house in McLean. David’s story was a fascinating and inspiring one; he came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and left with a Doctor of Philosophy degree, before going on to pursue a Juris Doctor back in America. Eventually, he would work his way up to become a partner at Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel and Frederick, a D.C.-based law firm which is considered to be one of the best in America. David himself also told us about the variety of cases he had argued at Courts of Appeal, including litigation between federal states.

Day 12 – 13 July

For our last full day in Washington, we did a little bit more sightseeing, visiting the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials during the morning, as well as passing through the small (and rather disappointing) Chinatown area to grab some frozen custard, a dessert similar to ice cream but made with eggs as well as milk and sugar.

However, the main activity of the day was visiting the Washington Post and meeting Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer and editor, as well as the husband of Univ Old Member Tim Sellers, who we would be meeting later in Philadelphia. Although she undoubtedly had a very busy schedule as an editor, she was very kind and accommodating in offering a whirlwind tour of the Post’s state-of-the-art head offices at One Franklin Square. It was fascinating to see how the Post had adapted to the new age of social media; Frances was showing us an app that Washington Post had developed in order to track where most of the readers were coming from, be it via Facebook, Twitter, or just the Washington Post website.

To conclude the day, we met with Sophie and David at an Italian restaurant downtown, and after a very hearty dinner, enjoyed a night-time drive around Washington; it was enjoyable to see the various government buildings and memorials lit up at night, creating a different feel to visiting them during the day.

We had an amazing stay at Sophie and David’s overall, and we also found it really special how David still has the oar from when he was rowing for Univ and we really enjoyed watching a film with them in their cute little cinema. Tiger especially enjoyed the film David recommended because it incorporated his favourite parts – history, mystery and the quintessential English country-life. We would really couldn’t thank them enough for hosting us, they’ve shown us the true meaning of American hospitality and living with them was most definitely one of the highlights of our trip. I especially enjoyed our conversations during meals and transport, where they’ve kept us very engaged in intellectual conversation while making sure that we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly during our stay without any financial burden.

Univ Ho and Shen Travel Report Day 13 – 14 July

On our second day in Philadelphia, we visited Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the first solitary confinement prisons created, and considered a much more ethical form of punishment.  Quakers believed that isolation would allow prisoners to ‘find God’, and they pioneered this system so well that ESP was a model of a modern major prison. Instead of being a form of punishment, the Quakers actually intended this place to be a place of self-reflection. This was contrary to the New York System, which was pioneered by the Sing Sing prison, and they believed prisoners should work together in silence and be subjected to physical punishment. The cells were also specially designed to represent the Quaker’s beliefs, where the walls were made of concrete with a single glass of skylight, suggesting to prisoners that this was the eye of God, and He would always be watching over them. Moreover, there were abnormally small doors in the cell, which would force the prisoners to bow while entering, presumably trying to humble them up. That certainly didn’t humble up Al Capone, who had his on posh little cell decorated with rugs, paintings, furniture and even a radio for him to listen to Waltz music. The Quakers thought they were quite humane by allowing prisoners to garden and also keep pets in their outdoor exercise yards, which is to be honest, much better than what current prisons allow. However, what they have neglected to see is that this is actually potential a worse form of torture compared to the New York Approach (which is the predecessor of most modern American prisons) and the ‘winner’ between the two approaches. In fact, the Stasi did use it as a form of torture, where they put political prisoners in solitary confinement within a pitch dark room which was deliberately curved so that they would lose sense of direction and gradually go slightly insane. Moreover, as suggested in  O’Keefe et al. (2008), mental illness was greater than 35% in administrative segregation compared to general prison populations, which has 25%. This is particularly dangerous, as it fosters a hub for psychosis and depression (potentially suicide). Moreover, it is largely ineffective, with many prisoners reoffending after release (Gibbons et al. 2006). None of this is a surprise, considering in this situation, there would be a learned hopelessness, because whatever one does, it is ineffective to change the situation, so they will fail to appreciate opportunities to try in the future. So perhaps the experience of visiting this prison is just a very nice reminder that solitary confinement, however we intended at the beginning is an  awful form of torture and should most definitely be banned unless necessary (e.g. with very dangerous criminals).

On a happier note, we also tried the world-famous Philly Cheesesteaks for both lunch and dinner, which was basically minced meat fried with cheese in a baguette. Very interesting and essentially obesity on a plate, just like most American food. Tiger and I were not proud of ourselves.

After dinner, we took a train out to Radnor, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, to meet with our host, Univ Old Member Professor Tim Sellers. Professor Sellers is a Regents Professor and a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, and was kind enough to offer us accommodation in Philadelphia; as he explained to us, his Radnor property had originally belonged to his grandfather, and was a very old building, parts of which dated to the nineteenth century.

We spent the rest of the night out on the patio with wine and cheese, chatting about all sorts of topics, ranging from psychology to Professor Sellers’ own family history; interestingly, the Sellers had roots in Quakerism, and so he happily took great interest in our little research project on Quakers and abolitionism.

Univ Ho and Shen Travel Report Day 14 – 15 July

We had hoped to visit the Quaker archives at Swarthmore College, so we were fortunate enough that Tim Sellers was happy to offer me a lift to get from his place in Radnor to Swarthmore. Having discussed with him my research topic of Quakers and abolitionism, he also decided that it would be worthwhile to pay a visit to Swarthmore as well in order to find out more about the role his own family had played in the fight against slavery; the Sellers, after all, had been active in Pennsylvania as Quaker abolitionists.

The archives themselves also offered a wealth of information on Quaker activities, notably in Baltimore with the minutes from the Baltimore Yearly Meetings, which also stressed a strong anti-slavery stance despite coexisting with the slaveholding population of Maryland.

We then took a bus to New York. To finish up our evening, we met with a friend of mine who was working at the United Nations, and he took us around Chinatown at night for a culinary and historical experience. Over bowls of congee and cold, refreshing drinks, he told us about the history of the New York Chinatown, and most interestingly, that it was in essence two distinct Chinatowns with distinct cultures on either side of the Bowery; on one side was a community made up of immigrants from Canton and Hong Kong, while the ‘other’ Chinatown consisted of immigrants from Fujian. As he explained, the split was not only due to the different waves of immigration to New York (the Cantonese immigrants to the ‘original’ Chinatown had been the first Chinese immigrants to come to New York) but also different political ideologies. Most notably, whereas the Fujian side of Chinatown was associated with the People’s Republic of China, the old Cantonese immigrants were associated with the Republic of China; consequently, the split could be best perceived through the flying of PRC flags on one side and ROC on the other.

Univ Ho and Shen Travel Report Days 15 to 18

The rest of our time in New York was spent unwinding and resting, while doing some light, relaxing sightseeing; we had been travelling extensively for the last two weeks, so it was very nice to slow down and have some more leisure time.

However, we were able to meet with some Old Members in New Jersey during our stay in New York; we travelled out to Clifton, NJ, to meet Rachel Matthews, who had dinner with us at a very unique diner that was decorated in chrome plating, a design that harked back to the old-style diners of the 1950s.

Another highlight was a visit to the United Nations Headquarters, courtesy of my friend who worked there as an intern with the New Zealand Permanent Mission.

Travel Tips, Acknowledgements and Finishing Thoughts

Before you travel

Unless you can magically find a way to be American or Canadian, before travelling to America, it is important that you apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) and have your ESTA confirmation with you when you travel; otherwise, there may be problems at immigration and customs

While booking accommodation (should there not be an Old Member to host?), try not to book it in a dodgy area (read: Don’t be like us and book accommodation in one of the most crime infested areas of Charleston, ALWAYS read ahead about the area your accommodation is in). Hint: Usually educational institutions (e.g. dorms) are one of your safest bets.

Contacting Old Members is absolutely essential as part of your role as Master’s Scholars. Do contact them early to make sure they’re available

It’s perhaps not ideal to go in July, as we found out the hard way; Old Members are likely to be on holiday during this period, and it’s way too hot so if you don’t want to melt like ice cream on a hot summer’s day, try going later, perhaps in August or September

During your travels

Do worry about flight connections at JFK or transferring from an American airport internationally to a domestic flight, because you will need to check out through baggage check and then check in again going through security. Don’t leave 40 minutes for your transfer (like we did).

America is a very large country with relatively poor infrastructure; that is to say, public transport can be lacking in some areas, especially the Old South, like Charleston and Greensboro. Transport between cities can also be especially lacking, and the Greyhound buses that we travelled with weren’t exactly top-of-the-line modes of transportation. Amtrak, the railway company, is also notorious for being both expensive and hellishly unreliable. It’s important, therefore, to keep this in mind the limits of public transport. Ideally, it would be useful to know how to drive and perhaps rent a car, but make sure you check the requirements and restrictions with regards to international visitors

Pre-book important locations you need to visit. For example, Congress, or National Archive guided tours, Eastern State Penitentiary etc.

Exercise common sense! America is just like any other country, so it will have its risks and dangers; avoid large crowds and try not to be out in unfamiliar areas late at night. If you have to be out late, make sure you have a way of getting back to your accommodation.

NOT afterthoughts!! i.e. You should have probably thought about this beforehand

Try record your diary entries down as blogs per day and keep track of what you visited and what you’ve done. Otherwise you’ll have a very hard time writing the report when it’s nearing the deadline.

Do remember to write thank you cards and thank you emails to your hosts! They’re not obliged to do this in any way, and it would be particularly nice as well if you could prepare thank you gifts if you’d like. We got some calligraphy pen and paper, fans and we also made Chinese food to thank some of our hosts.

Do come to us (Tiger Shen and Raymond Ho) for advice if you need any further tips or experience sharing! We would be more than happy and will try to help as much as we can.

Find out more about the range of travel grants and scholarships available to assist Univ students on our Travel Grants page or read further travel reports.

Published: 15 December 2019

Explore Univ on social media

University College Oxford

Contact Univ

If you have any questions or need more information, just ask: